For music fans, the 22,000-seat shoreline amphitheatre in Silicon Valley is iconic. Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham designed it with inspiration from the Grateful Dead logo, and that band played here 39 times. Neil Young, the Bee Gees, Bruce Springsteen—they’ve all graced the Shoreline stage. A few weeks ago, accompanied by bouncy electronica music and arcade-inspired videos flashing across giant screens, so did Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
It would be an exaggeration to say he looked comfortable as he walked on stage. The cerebral 43-year-old is built like a straw, his eyes darting behind rectangular glasses, more Carl Sagan than Carlos Santana. No matter. At the annual Google I/O conference, he was a rockstar, the headline act. As he took in the hoots and cheers from the crowd of software developers, his face eventually settled into a smile. “We live in very, very exciting times.
Computing has had an amazing evolution,” Pichai said in his South Indian accent, stretching amaaaaazing as a way to get the crowd going.
Okay, not exactly Steve Jobs. Or even Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook. Pichai is the classic insider CEO, a low-profile, methodical brainiac who would rather geek out over the future of computer science than whip up a crowd of software developers with choreographed product demos. And that’s exactly what Google co-founder Larry Page was after when he handpicked Pichai last year to take over one of the greatest tech franchises of all time.
The task at hand is monumental. With a market cap of roughly half a trillion dollars, Google, or rather its parent, Alphabet, is the world’s second-most-valuable company, dominating vast swathes of the tech industry, including search, digital advertising, mobile and video. But Page and Pichai know all too well that tech behemoths often lose their way when they are strongest. And while earlier tech giants, from IBM to BlackBerry, were felled by a single foe, Google faces a bruising multifront war with the other four superpowers in tech. It’s fighting Apple in mobile and Facebook in advertising, video and communications. It’s pitted against Amazon in commerce, a resurgent Microsoft in business software, and Amazon and Microsoft in cloud services.
Pichai wages all these battles amid a fundamental technological shift. As Google continues to navigate the transition from desktop to mobile, computing is already moving to multiple screens and in some instances—such as with Amazon’s surprise hit Echo smart speaker—no screens. Interactions with devices and apps are quickly becoming two-way conversations, sometimes employing smart “bots” promoted by Microsoft, Facebook and others. Unlike apps, these bots run atop communications services like Facebook’s Messenger (900 million users) or Microsoft’s Skype (300 million users). Google has the wildly popular Gmail (more than 1 billion users), but it lacks the kind of modern messaging system that the younger set favours.
Pichai, however, believes this new tech world is tailor-made for Google because of one thing: Artificial Intelligence (AI). Pretty much everyone can program simple, rudimentary conversations—Apple’s Siri was among the first—but to go beyond flashy “demo-ware” you need more sophisticated algorithms. And Artificial Intelligence has been in Google’s wheelhouse for years. The company invested in fundamental building blocks such as voice recognition, language understanding and machine translation long before most of its rivals. And after years of preparation, Pichai says, the company is ready to bring all that work together in compelling products that will keep the company ahead of the competition. “We have this vision of a shift from mobile-first to an AI-first world over many years,” Pichai tells Forbes.
On stage at the Shoreline, Pichai unveiled the early fruits of those efforts: A smart speaker called Google Home that is aimed squarely at Amazon’s Echo (and perhaps at an upcoming one Apple is rumoured to be developing) and a messaging app called Allo. Powering both is a new service that Pichai calls the “Google assistant”, the company’s own take on conversational computing.
Think of it as Search 3.0—a new, interactive way to communicate with Google itself. With it you’ll be able to order a ticket, book a flight, play music, schedule a task, reply to a message; the Google assistant might even write it for you. It might prompt you to order flowers ahead of Mother’s Day or to pack for your upcoming trip, and it might be able to pick up an earlier conversation from where you left off. In other words, it will be there, ready to help, in your phone, your speakers, your television, your car, your watch and eventually everywhere. “You are trying to go about your day, and in an ambient way, things are there to help you,” Pichai says. Making sure this assistant lives up to its full potential will take years, and building it will be harder than it was for Page and co-founder Sergey Brin to create search itself. Adds Pichai: “In every dimension, it is more ambitious.”
Pichai landed at Google in 2004, when the fast-growing search company still considered Microsoft its most formidable foe. Pichai was thrown into the trenches of the company’s battle with the software giant. From the very beginning, he exhibited a methodical and strategic approach to decision making that propelled him through Google’s managerial ranks. He was put in charge of an unglamorous but critical piece of software, the Google Toolbar, which allowed people to search directly on their browsers without having to go to Google’s home page.
Pichai’s strategic work on the toolbar led to his next big bet: The Chrome browser. The project was controversial inside Google, where some feared it would unnecessarily irk Microsoft, whose Internet Explorer dominated the browser market. Pichai argued that Google could build a better browser and that it risked losing a substantial chunk of its search revenue if Microsoft, as many feared, tweaked Explorer to make it more difficult for users to access Google. With a small team, Pichai, who at the time worked for Marissa Mayer, now the CEO of Yahoo, developed the product quietly. While its carefully orchestrated launch in 2008 was a PR fiasco, courtesy of a German blogger who obtained marketing materials and broke the news early, Pichai’s browser was slicker and faster than anything else in the market, and his team managed to keep it ahead even as rivals raced to catch up. By 2012, Chrome had become the No 1 PC browser, and thanks to the growth of Android, it’s also the most popular on mobile devices.
Chrome’s improbable victory cemented Pichai’s reputation as a product whiz and, even though he never started a company, something of an entrepreneur, and it set him on a vertiginous ascent up Google’s corporate ladder. “There is a part of Google that has a professorial style, and Sundar fits that perfectly,” says a former senior executive. “But people underestimate how deeply technical and how entrepreneurial he is. He’s very, very good at that stuff.”
His responsibilities grew as some of his would-be rivals fell out of favour. Mayer, his one-time boss, was sidelined and left for Yahoo. In 2013, Pichai, who had gone on to develop an operating system and a set of laptops based on Chrome, was handed control of Android, one of Google’s crown jewels, after Andy Rubin, its creator, was pushed aside. A year later, Vic Gundotra, the senior exec who led Google +, the company’s expensive and ill-fated push into social networking, was forced out as well.
Throughout it all, Pichai remained unflappable, burnishing his reputation as a collegial executive and, more important, earning the trust of Page. “He will make tough and difficult decisions, but there is not much swirl around them,” the former senior executive says. “People love the lack of drama and the thoughtfulness. It’s led to more cohesion.” At a retreat for Google’s top brass last spring, Pichai was asked to sketch a vision for how apps would evolve in a multiscreen world. When he was done, a beaming Page stepped up to say he couldn’t have painted a clearer picture of the future, according to a person who was there. “They really see eye to eye on what the future will look like,” this executive says. A few months later, when Page reorganised Google into a holding company called Alphabet, he named Pichai CEO of Google. It accounts for 99 percent of Alphabet’s revenue and all of its profits.
Ground zero of Pichai’s push into an AI-first world is a nondescript two-storey building across the street from the centre of the company’s sprawling Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California, where a skunkworks, appropriately called Google Brain, develops much of the intelligence that will bring Google and its products into the future.
The group was formed about four years ago as something of a research experiment involving a set of AI programming techniques called deep learning and neural networks. Computer scientists had developed the techniques years earlier, but they hadn’t been properly tested because they required massive amounts of computing power. Google had that power, so it brought one of its leaders in large-scale computing systems, engineer Jeff Dean, together with AI experts. They trained the systems on the task of recognising images, and the results were immediately encouraging, delivering huge improvements over Google’s existing methods.
Google Photos, released a year ago, brought those improvements to the masses and wowed the tech world with its ability to recognise and search images and to automatically organise them. You can search for a person, a type of animal or images of people hugging. Despite intense competition from rival products, Google Photos now has 200 million users. To Pichai, it’s a classic example of how better AI can help Google win. “Were people using other photo products?” Pichai asks. “Yes. Have we seen tremendous adoption and traction with Google Photos? The answer is yes.”
What worked for image recognition turned out to work when applied to voice recognition, translation and other similar tasks. When Dean’s systems were trained to recognise speech, accuracy jumped dramatically. That means there are far fewer times when an “OK Google” query on an Android phone is misunderstood. It also means that Google is more likely to understand someone like Pichai, with his lilting accent, or to detect what is being said in a noisy bar and do it in more than 55 languages.
Similarly, the techniques used to recognise images in Google Photos are able to power StreetView’s ability to “read” signs and Project Sunroof’s ability to identify rooftops that are suitable for solar panels based on aerial images. It’s also enabling a small experimental team at Google to effectively detect diabetic retinopathy, an eye disease that can lead to blindness, by looking at iris scans. “It’s a pretty significant shift,” Dean says. “Word is spreading throughout the company that there is this new capability to solve problems in this way,” he says, in reference to the new AI techniques.
What started as a research project with a handful of people has grown to perhaps hundreds—Dean refuses to say how many—who have developed algorithms, computer systems and, more recently, Google’s own chips, all customised for these AI approaches. (Google Brain’s software tools are known as TensorFlow and the chips as Tensor Processing Units.) As a result there are now more than 2,000 projects inside the company applying Google Brain’s capabilities to scores of products. Dean’s group has held machine-learning office hours, and thousands of Google engineers have gone through internal courses that can last weeks. “It went from being a research project to a mainstream engineering activity,” says John Giannandrea, an AI expert appointed by Pichai to lead the company’s search efforts.
To see the immediate potential of machine learning to create a new generation of digital products—ones that could change how humans themselves live—Allo, which won’t be publicly available until later this summer, is a good place to start. Despite a mature and saturated market for communications apps, Pichai bets that, as with Photos (and with his Chrome browser), a few smart features will help it gain a following.
One of them, Smart Reply, automatically suggests three different pre-written answers to a message based on its content. Google developed Smart Reply in less than a year and first tested it in Inbox, a mobile email app. It allows users on the go to select one of the answers and reply with a single tap. With Allo, Google went one step further, blending Smart Reply with image recognition, so it can suggest responses to photos sent via message. Send your friend a picture of yourself skydiving and Allo may suggest replies like “awesome”, “brave” or “scary”; send a picture of a kid or pet, and it may suggest “cute”. In Allo, the Google assistant might also pop up in the middle of a conversation to help you book a restaurant or plan a trip.
Google’s rivals are also rushing into an AI-powered world. Microsoft has an initiative similar to Google Brain that involves pushing machine-learning techniques into scores of products; its CEO, Satya Nadella, recently showcased conversational bots built atop its Cortana digital assistant. Facebook’s Zuckerberg has quickly built a team of hundreds of AI researchers who have made breakthroughs in image recognition and language understanding, and he’s demonstrated bots built atop Messenger. Amazon’s Bezos has more than 1,000 people working on the family of products tied to Alexa, the conversational interface that powers the Echo smart speaker. Apple is busy expanding Siri’s capabilities and is expected to open it up to third-party developers soon.
Pichai is convinced Google is further along than its competitors. He cites AlphaGo, which recently defeated the world’s best Go player—and may someday be applied to more practical problems—as the kind of investment that will keep it at the head of the pack. “When you look at machine learning and AI, there are things you can do now, some in two to three years and some that are deeper and will take more time to do,” Pichai says. Observers like Harvard’s Yoffie agree that Google is well-positioned to lead the transition to an AI-powered world. “Sundar is jumping on the right categories and making a lot of good decisions,” Yoffie says. Then he adds: “But he hasn’t really been tested yet.”
(This story appears in the 22 July, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)